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Obama delivers lessons on work, purpose

Lessons on leading teams and driving progress from President Barack Obama

7 min read


Obama delivers lessons on work, purpose

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Finding purpose in work, creating rigorous processes and minding your values were among the lessons President Barack Obama shared with attendees at this year’s Association for Talent Development International Conference and Exposition in San Diego. More than 10,000 attendees gathered—many of them getting in line as early as 5:30 a.m., sans caffeine—to hear from the former president.

Here are highlights from his conversation with ATD President Tony Bingham.

Follow your North Star

Make sure you’re doing something because it’s the right thing to do—because you have something to offer—not just because you want to be something, Obama advised. He learned this lesson during an unsuccessful run for Congress in 2000.

“I got whooped!” he joked.

When Obama was in the state legislature, he decided to challenge the local congressman, also a Democrat, whom he felt was underperforming. An informal poll, conducted by his staff, indicated that Obama was well-liked among his constituents. He decided to announce his run. “I was a little impatient,” he admitted.

It was a mistake. After the announcement, the staff ran a formal poll and the results were dismal. Only 11% of constituents knew who he was. His opponent won by a landslide.

The experience taught him a valuable lesson. It’s easy for people to get obsessed with titles and dreams of corner offices, Obama said. It happens when they don’t spend enough time thinking about what they want to achieve. “They don’t have a North Star or a compass to guide their actions and their decisions,” he said.

Find your passion, Obama advised, and let that guide your time, energy and actions. “If you’re doing those things every day that are actually meaningful to you,” he said, “then over time you will find yourself achieving and rising into positions of more and more influence because you learned to do what you care about really well.”

Put different voices at the table

Create an environment in which all team members can constructively contribute to discussion, Obama said. You need “a bunch of different voices [and] different perspectives around the table,” he said.

Obama used the auto industry bailout to illustrate his point. With the economy contracting faster than it did during the Great Depression, his administration needed to make swift decisions about the auto companies that were going bankrupt. Chrysler presented the biggest issue, Obama said, adding that the polls in Michigan indicated “that 90% of the people did not want us helping the auto companies. It was really unpopular.”

Some members of the economic team urged the president to let Chrysler go. Other members argued that doing so would cause suppliers and dealers to go under, creating a catastrophic domino effect. “It was probably a 51/49 decision,” Obama said.

Times like this call for an “honest, transparent, rigorous process where you are hearing all sides of the debate and … insisting on getting the best information possible,” Obama said. Failure happens when you don’t get all the data needed to make a decision. You need a system that encourages all members to speak up and contribute

“That kind of culture doesn’t mean you’re always going to get things right,” Obama said. “But what it does mean is that you’re in the best position possible to both make good decisions, work the probabilities in your favor and to learn quickly when you do make mistakes.”

Mind your values

Values give meaning and purpose to action, driving people to give more of themselves, above and beyond a paycheck, Obama said.

The president told the story of Ronnie, a young Chinese-American campaign staffer originally from Los Angeles, assigned to organize the campaign in a small town in Iowa. On his first day going door-to-door throughout the community, Ronnie was called a racial slur used against Asians. The incident did not deter the energetic staffer.

Instead, Ronnie planted himself in the community, Obama said. He set up a booth outside the grocery store and started helping elderly customers carry their groceries to their cars. He found out that the local Little League team needed a coach, and he volunteered for the position. And all the while, he promoted Obama’s campaign and message for America.

Ronnie won over the community—one made up largely of conservative voters. When Obama visited the town for a rally, he noticed the support the young man had curried. “By the end of this process, he could have been elected mayor,” Obama joked.

Ronnie’s success was the result of his value system, Obama said. “He was in possession of a set of values that he carried into that situation,” Obama said. “Sticking to it; about being respectful to people; about being helpful; about being open minded; about not being discouraged. … And that’s what sticks. That’s the stuff that lasts.”

Don’t rush the process

Change begins when people and organizations realize that the current situation is not going to work, Obama explained. “That requires being willing to get information from others and looking at yourself squarely,” he said.

The next step is breaking change into its component parts and then being patient as you work through the process, Obama said. He gave as an example the Affordable Care Act. The law provided health care to 20 million people who didn’t have it before, Obama said, and cut the uninsured rate to its lowest reported level ever. Despite the success, some members of his party were dissatisfied.

“Some Democrats—some people in my own party—were frustrated because we hadn’t insured everybody yet,” he said. He had to explain that the process would be difficult and take time. “This is the first phase. … We’re gonna build on it, continuously over time, and refine it, make it better.”

Change is a process, Obama said; it requires patience, consistency and time. “Don’t expect perfect performance immediately,” he said.” As long as you’re moving in the right direction … that’s how to bring about real change.”

Push for progress

Obama is “cautiously optimistic” about the future, despite the myriad of challenges—corruption, racial tensions, strained economies, environmental challenges—the world faces.

“The arc—the trajectory—of human history has been progress,” he said. People today are, on average, wealthier, healthier, more tolerant and better educated, he said. “Things have gotten better. 50 years ago, it would have been unimaginable for me to be sitting here talking to you.”

Nonetheless, more work remains “because that progress is not inevitable,” he said. Organizations must ensure all people are treated with respect and afforded opportunity to advance and contribute. Communities must develop pathways that allow all students—children and adults—to access an affordable, high-quality education. And we must all become better stewards of our environment, Obama said.

“Progress is the result of each of us, individually, taking responsibility for making things a little bit better,” he said. “If we can have a sense of humor, be forgiving about our foibles and flaws, knowing that none of us are perfect but [that] we all have our responsibility to make the world a better place … If all of us are doing our part in that way, we’ll figure it out. We’ll be OK.”


Kanoe Namahoe is the editor of SmartBrief on Workforce and SmartBrief on EdTech.


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